Elizabeth Perkins: ‘In 1980s Hollywood, there were no safety nets, no HR’

The Brat Pack actor on luck, sexism and Big’s love scene – ‘It would not be acceptable today’

Veering from horror to joy and back again, Elizabeth Perkins is contemplating what it would be like if her adult children moved home. "The thing is, you miss them so much, then they'll come back for a holiday and within a week there's dirty dishes everywhere, there's wet towels on the floor, they've eaten all the food. After a couple of weeks you're, like, 'Will they ever leave?'"

This is the timely theme of Perkins's show The Moodys, the first season of which, in 2019, saw three grownup children return home to Chicago for Christmas. Perkins plays Ann Moody, their mother; Denis Leary plays her husband. In the new season all three children are living at the family home, with predictably messy consequences. "It really explored that dichotomy of: you love them to death, but, man, they get on your nerves," says Perkins.

It is a dynamic familiar to many families. Perkins’s daughter and three stepsons – all in their 20s – have not returned home, but lots of her friends’ kids have, due to the pandemic. “It’s interesting, because, in my generation, you were considered a loser if you moved back in with your parents,” says Perkins, who is 60. “But things have changed. When I look at how hard my kids have to work to earn a living compared with when I was their age, it’s much harder for them.” The stigma of moving back home, she says, “is outdated”. There is a perfectly timed pause. “But it still doesn’t help the parents when the kids move back.”

For the past 15 years Perkins's most interesting work has been on television – she was the nightmare neighbour Celia Hodes in Weeds, the boozy busybody Jackie O'Neill in Sharp Objects and a mother trying to prove her son's innocence in Truth Be Told. These are not roles with which the film industry is awash, "particularly for women my age", she says. "They don't necessarily see you as a box-office draw." There are exceptions – she is impressed by the work actors such as Viola Davis, who is 55, and Frances McDormand, who is 63, are doing. She says of the film industry: "It would be nice if they got on that bandwagon, but it is what it is."


Perkins’s film career peaked in the 1980s and 1990s – her big break was as Tom Hanks’s girlfriend in Big, in 1988. In the 1990s she featured in intelligent, critically acclaimed films (Barry Levinson’s Avalon) and more obviously commercial projects (she played Wilma in The Flintstones and starred in a remake of Miracle on 34th Street).

But television is where the meaty projects are, even if she still finds herself rolling her eyes at scripts that come in with underwritten parts for older women. “But I also think that people hire me based on what they know I’ll bring – I can read something and say, ‘I can make this into something interesting,’” she says. “I don’t base my interest on the size of the role, which I think some actors do. If it’s an interesting character, like with Sharp Objects, that’s more interesting to me than, ‘Am I the lead?’”

With her background in ensemble theatre, you get the sense that Perkins just loves being around other actors, rather than being the star; the result, perhaps, is that she is underrated, even if she is a regular scene-stealer in supporting roles.

When Perkins made her debut in the Brat Pack movie About Last Night, she was barely three years out of drama college. The film, with Rob Lowe, Demi Moore and Jim Belushi, "set me on my way. I know a lot of really talented actors who never had that kind of break, and I was just incredibly lucky to be there and be able to pull that off."

This seems typically self-effacing. Although we are separated by a phone line, her voice is low and warm, and there are small but telling details – she asks questions about my life; she has been with the same agency all her career – that hint at a grounded actor not driven by ego. She says there is a point at which “you only want to work with people you like, that you admire as people and what they stand for. I turn down a lot of work because I don’t want to be around any divas; I don’t want people who yell and scream.”

Her character in The Moodys, Ann, has retrained as a psychologist after years raising her children – she is partly informed by Perkins’s mother, who became a counsellor when Perkins, the youngest of three daughters, left home. “It really changed her perspective on the world,” says Perkins. “It boosted her self-esteem: she finally had something that was all hers, that was not based around the home and the kids. She just blossomed as a woman in her 50s.”

Perkins’s childhood sounds like an improbable screenplay pitch. She was born in New York, but when her parents divorced, and her mother remarried, Perkins moved with her to live on her maternal grandfather’s farm on the border of Vermont and Massachusetts. “It was, like, ‘We’re going to go be hippies now and have a garden.’ We were completely ill-prepared,” she says with a laugh. “I think I coped the same way everybody else in the family did – shock and awe, then the realisation that we were going to have to plough our own road. It was a learning curve, but it definitely made me stronger and it turned me on to a love of nature. We had cows and chickens, and I learned how to work the land.”

Her new stepfather came, too – along with his eight children. If swapping the streets of Queens for a 250-hectare farm in the middle of nowhere was a shock, she was also suddenly one of 11 children. “When my sisters and I look back on that we’re, like, ‘Wow, what were you thinking?’ Like, ‘Oh, I met this wonderful guy. He has eight children.’ I mean, I married a man who had three children, and that’s as far as you really want to go.”

There were so many of them that two pairs even had the same names – there was a big Susan and a little Susan, and a big Betsy and a little Betsy (that was Perkins). “It was like living in a commune,” she says. Later, when she met her husband, Julio Macat, a cinematographer, “the idea that he had children and I could have a big family was comforting to me. I found the idea of having all these people in the house very familiar.”

She says she "just kind of fell into" acting, discovering plays at primary school. "Everybody was being creative and making costumes and jumping around – I was a very hyperactive kid, always on the move, running somewhere, climbing a tree, and it just looked like fun." At 17 Perkins moved to Chicago to take up a place at the prestigious Goodman School of Drama (now the Theatre School at DePaul University). She became part of the city's Steppenwolf theatre – the groundbreaking company that counted John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf among its first members – and was married to one of its founders, Terry Kinney, for half of the 1980s.

What was it like being part of that crowd? “They were just creating some of the most electric theatre that we’d ever seen,” she says. Being with them, she felt “elated all the time. We all played softball together, went out to restaurants together, and bars … It was just this really tight group of people.”

Being strong-willed and down-to-earth – qualities forged, she thinks, in her large family and then in this theatre environment – protected Perkins as a young woman entering Hollywood in the 1980s. “There were no safety nets, no HR. It was just, you’re in this system and it’s overwhelming.” Did she experience sexism? “Of course – we all did.” She remembers going to meetings with producers and directors “where they would just flat-out say: ‘Yeah, you’re just not sexy enough.’ Today that would just not be something that would come out of anyone’s mouth.”

That is one effect of the #MeToo movement and the reckoning the film and TV business has had since the conviction of Harvey Weinstein. “It has changed the industry, but there’s a lot of work still to be done,” says Perkins. “I don’t think change happens quickly, and inclusivity, diversity and equality are always going to be something you have to fight for. I’m proud to speak up when I can, because we do have the power to change if enough people speak up. That’s important to me as a woman who has been in this business for 35 years, to defend and speak out if I see injustice or…” She pauses. “For people who don’t have a voice of their own.”

Given how switched-on Perkins is, it seems like the right moment to ask how she feels about Big. The film, in which a boy makes a wish on a Zoltar funfair machine and wakes up the next morning as an adult, is brilliant and beloved – and also weird and wrong. If, like me, you grew up watching it over and over again, you loved it for the possibility that adulthood would contain apartments with trampolines and Pepsi machines; now you watch it and think, There is Susan, the thirtysomething executive whom Perkins plays, about to have sex with Josh, Hanks’s character, who is really a 13-year-old boy.

“Oh, I know. I’ve been called a paedophile,” she says with a chuckle. Then her voice becomes more serious. “You know, I get it. The only thing I can say is it was a different time. It was the 80s; it was not viewed through that lens, and I get that it is being viewed through that lens now.” It wouldn’t be made today in the same way, would it? “I don’t think that scene …” She is referring to the bedroom encounter in which Josh puts his hand on Susan’s breast and it is implied that they are about to have sex. It wouldn’t happen now, she says.

Were there any concerns at the time? “If you look at it in the movie, it was sort of used as a joke. Here he is the next morning, the elevator door opens and he bounces out, like, ‘Wow, I just had my first sexual experience.’” He was – properly, this time, it implied – now a man. “It was a setup for a joke that today would not be acceptable.”

Poor Susan – she could not look more horrified when Josh turns back into his 13-year-old self. She waves him off to his mother with a look approaching maternal affection; you or I might consider handing ourselves in to the police, or at least block-booking therapy. “Oh, we had several different takes,” she says. “We had me being horrified, me being scared. There are a lot of different ways that we can go, but I think Penny [Marshall, the director] chose very carefully – that there is a lot of admiration between Susan and Josh, and ultimately a great friendship.”

When you have worked for more than three decades, it is inevitable that earlier work will be reappraised with different standards (and Big’s creepy love angle is hardly Perkins’s fault). She seems to have been barely out of work since then. “The fact that I’m at this age and I’m still able to work with somebody like Denis Leary, whom I really respect – I feel like I couldn’t ask for a better life,” she says. When she talks about her dogs, her husband (“I’m in a long-term marriage with a man I adore”) and her kids, she sounds completely grateful for the fortune of it all – as if Zoltar himself could not have granted any more.

It was on her first film that Lowe, her costar, observed that Perkins had been “born under a lucky star”. “That’s how I feel,” she says. “I think I was 24 years old, and I’ve always held on to that.” – Guardian

Season two of The Moodys is broadcast in the US on Fox on Thursday nights